No, seriously, what’s with all the Burpee’s?

No, seriously, what’s with all the Burpee’s?

In the CrossFit community, and the fitness community at large, Burpees seem to be something like a running gag. You can watch videos on YouTube, read blog posts on just about every fitness related website, and of course pick up your favorite fitness book at local retailers, and the vast majority of them will mention the Burpee as an exercise. A little more than half the time, they are referred to with a combination of anger, reverence, and begrudging acceptance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in that same category of people who cringes a little bit when he sees Burpees in a work out, but today we’re going to discuss why one of the most exhausting movements in all of fitness is something that you should not only be doing regularly, but also enjoying thoroughly.

What is a Burpee?

A burpee, also called a squat thrust, is often used for both strength work and conditioning/aerobic work. Because it uses several disparate major muscle groups, it is considered a full body exercise. Here’s how to do one:

  1. Begin in a standing position.
  2. Drop into a squat position with your hands on the ground outside your feet.
  3. Kick both feet back simultaneously, while holding your upper body up with your hands.
  4. Immediately jump your feet back to the squat/crouch position.
  5. Stand up from the squat position with force, so you perform a small jump at the top.
  6. Rinse and repeat.
burpee movement

Why are Burpees so Awesome?

If you’ve ever worked out, either on your own or with a trainer, chances are you’ve heard the term “full body workout” or something similar. What this refers to is a workout routine that hits all the major and supporting muscle groups in your body in a single session of exercise. This is in contrast to “targeted workouts” that focus on more specific areas of the body. Some targeting options might include: legs only, upper body only, chest/back, etc. You can also target based on the movement pattern instead, for instance: pulling, pushing, lifting, core, etc. At CrossFit Catonsville we tend to break things out by movement pattern rather than muscle group, but it has a similar result.

Burpees are awesome in that they work several movement patterns and muscle groups all in one movement. They were originally created by a man named Royal H. Burpee as a way to quickly and easily test physical fitness. He created the movement and the “Burpee test” as part of his PhD thesis (Applied Physiology, Columbia University, 1940). The U.S. military picked it up entering World War II as a way to test Army recruits for agility, coordination and strength. Source, if you care.

The basic Burpee has a lot going on. Below I’ve outlined the movement pattern and the muscles involved in that movement pattern.

Squat

Going from standing to the full squat forces the quadriceps (front thigh), hamstrings (back thigh), and gluteus maximus (the butt, also called “glutes”) to work together to control how fast you go down. Moving from standing to squatting is an eccentric motion, meaning the muscles lengthen.

Your lower back muscles, called erector spinae, work to maintain your upright body posture during the descent.

Knee/Hip Extension

With your arms locked, you engage your hamstrings and glutes to extend the hip and throw the feet out into the top plank/top push-up position. Once your toes hit, you engage your quadriceps and hip flexors prevent your hips/legs from collapsing to the ground.

High Plank

Your upper back muscles (trapezius and portions of the deltoids) engage as you press your hands into the push-up top hold position.

Your rectus abdominus (“abs”) contracts to stabilize your spine (and is the major muscle worked in planks, FYI).

The muscles of your arms (triceps and deltoids, mostly), chest (pectoralis major and minor), and shoulders (deltoids) all contract to hold you off the ground.

Knee/Hip Flexion

To return the feet from plank to squat, you need to powerfully engage the hip flexors and abdominals into a jump, while also keeping the upper body muscles mentioned above tense so you don’t collapse into a heap of confused bruises. All this brings your feet back into the right position to shift weight from a top plank into a bottom squat.

Explosive Hip/Knee Extension

Also called jumping, this again engages the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes just like the squat motion at the beginning. This is the concentric part of the motion which generates power by shortening the muscles. We do it quickly so the movement is explosive and drives the body off the ground into a standing jump.

During the jump you can also swing your arms up over your head to engage the deltoids (shoulders).

Muscles Worked in a Basic Burpee

Muscles Worked in the Burpee

I don’t know about you, but when I think “full body workout” this is pretty much what I envision. The basic burpee – without push-ups, bigger jumps, or other modifications – works the majority of the muscular system from head to toe. They are a great exercise because as you engage all these muscle groups, your body has to pump blood to each and every one of them, increasing your heart rate and making your myocardial muscle (i.e. your heart) work harder as well. So, not only does the basic burpee work a large number of skeletal muscles, it also works one of the most important smooth muscles in your body harder than other movements!

Just for fun, here’s an overall fitness improvement plan for people who don’t have fancy gyms, lots of equipment, or even a lot of time.

Frequency: Every other day with no extra rest days (see below)

Cycle: 2 weeks; start Monday with an A/B week split

  • Week A: Mon/Wed/Fri/Sun
  • Week B: Tue/Thu/Sat

Work: In week 1, do 3 sets of 10 basic burpees each working day, then follow the progression below for following weeks

Progression:

  • Every week add +1 burpees per set
    • Week 1: 3 sets of 10
    • Week 2: 3 sets of 11
    • Etc.
  • In week 6, add the reps and another set at the same count
    • Week 6: 4 sets of 15
    • Week 7: 4 sets of 16
    • Etc.
  • In week 11, add the reps and another set at the same count
    • Week 11: 5 sets of 20
    • Week 12: 5 sets of 21
    • Etc.

You can continue this progression forever, technically, but the reps/sets will start to get kind of crazy after a while (e.g. 7 sets of 33 reps at 6 months, 13 sets of 61 reps at 12 months). Don’t let me stop you if you want to try it, but be careful and listen to your body if you make the attempt. If it feels like too much, then it probably is!